From the Archives: What “Neuroeducation” Needs

We have long been interested in education and the arts, and a decade ago we funded a series of pilot studies to look for ways to measure whether training in the arts changed the brain in ways that would transfer to other cognitive abilities. In 2009, we published the results of our Arts and Cognition Consortium—nine investigators at seven major universities, who found tentative signs of benefits, including transfer, that they continue to pursue.

In May 2009, we helped support The Johns Hopkins University School of Education’s hosting of the inaugural Learning, Arts, and the Brain Summit, “to explore the intersection of cognitive neuroscience, the arts, and learning.” Some of our consortium scientists presented their research, and more than 300 educators, scientists, school administrators, and policy makers shared their perspectives on how to get a handle on this rather new amalgam, “neuro-education.”

I took part in the roundtable discussions, and heard the longing in teachers’ voices for something substantive to take back that would help their kids, as well as their frustration at researchers whose work didn’t answer the questions teachers have. “Two-way street” came up a couple times.

We published the highlights from these discussions a few months later, along with summaries of the science and policy panels. Discussion topics fell into six main categories:

  • The questions educators need to have answered. What should be the role of arts integration and arts in education? How can neuroscience research promote arts integration in the classroom?
  • The bridging of the tactical gap between neuroscience and education. How can the neuroscience and educational research communities come together to address the questions of educators?
  • The arts as an agent for behavioral change. What are the most important outcomes we should consider to evaluate the effectiveness of an arts-inclusive curriculum?
  • The arts as impetus for engagement. How do the arts influence attention and engagement in learning?
  • The need for evolved skills. How can we address ongoing training and professional development for educators now and in the long term?
  • The need for communication. How do we ensure the critical communication of researchers with educators; educators with educators; colleges and universities with their students and prospective educators; educators and researchers with parents, administrators, and policy-makers; and arts advocates with educational and community stakeholders?
  • Rather than looking to neuroscience or the arts for a magic formula to explain the learning process, roundtable participants sought to segregate cause and effect. Educators experienced with arts integration were convinced of its benefits, but they (and their principals and school boards) are under pressure to show hard evidence. Will arts-integrated curricula lead to students who demonstrate creativity and higher-order thinking? Will arts-integrated curricula help students learn course content better? Will it help them become more engaged in learning? Will it result in higher standardized test scores? Is there support from educators across all disciplines? What is the pedagogical basis for building curricula on principles that transcend the empirical success of overt practice? [See complete list]

How far have we come in the past seven years? While cuts to education programs and to research spending can be as fast as the next fiscal-year budget, scientific research progresses slowly, and the child who was in fifth grade is now finishing high school. The clearest arguments for arts education remain the social ones, described well by Jerome Kagan in a speech during the summit and included in the report as “Six Good Reasons for Advocating the Importance of Arts in School.”

When a dozen children complete a mural or play an orchestral piece, the group, not the individual, is the target of praise. My friends who sing in choirs report an intense feeling of exhilaration when they are singing together in front of an audience. This emotion is not exactly like the feeling evoked when one receives a grade of 100 on a test. The problems facing the contemporary world demand some subversion of self interest in order to lift the interests of the larger community into a position of ascendance. Perhaps participation in a school orchestra is a useful preparation for the stance that will be required in this century…

The argument for arts and music in the curriculum does not have to be sentimental, but can rest on pragmatic grounds. Americans reserve their respect for pragmatic products and associated skills that make money, cure disease, or permit a gain in status, and believe that art and music are luxuries with no useful consequences. If an arts program helped only one-half of the seven million children who are behind in reading and arithmetic by providing them with a sense of pride and the belief that they might have some talent, the high school dropout rate would fall. This program might also help children gain a richer appreciation of their emotional life and what it means to be human.

– Nicky Penttila

One response

  1. I completely agree with you about the benefits of orchestral playing, but they don’t come automatically with arts education and are not limited to it. The arts are becoming more oriented towards solo performance– more the equivalent of getting 100 on a test. I think we need to be conscious of the need for teamwork and collaboration in the arts, and also in the sciences. Teams of scientists working in focused, organized collaboration like an orchestra can accomplish great things.

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